Sam Lipsyte on his story collection ‘The Fun Parts’
What is it about your contemptible protagonists — addicts, poseurs, cast-offs and outcasts — that makes them so engaging, even likable?
When you get the right kind of language going with these characters, especially when they’re narrating, they’re able to get across a sense of life as it really feels. Even if it’s not a pretty picture, it’s filled with a raw humor and openness. We recognize aspects of ourselves in them. I strive for intimacy. I don’t want to mock [my characters]; they mock themselves. And whenever they interact with the world, they tend to lose, but that doesn’t make them losers.
Many of your protagonists chock up their problems, often without resentment, to flawed parenting. What do you think we inherit from our parents?
I have kids myself, so I’m thinking about these things. The scariest thing is that my own parents have no idea which moments that made a difference because they were usually so banal. You would never remember doing them in your own lifetime but your child is studying you and freezes them forever. I hope that with my children I’m saying the right thing when they’re taking the picture.
It seems that we meet each character at the beginning of the end of a major crisis.
I’m always interested in characters that have their backs into the corner as we begin; it adds more tension. We end up getting the back-story anyway to some degree, right? You have to design a machine that will feed information in a way that seems part of the thrill. An old teacher of mine once said, “there’s no getting to the good parts.”
Or in this case, “the fun parts.”
How do you find humor in life’s unsung tragedies?
I view everything in a tragic-comic light. Most things [in life] are dead serious and quite funny at the same time. Something can be really funny and then suddenly, as you’re laughing so hard, you begin to see how painful everything is or it shows you some flash of the abyss. We are always seeing things from different angles. I think having just one [way of seeing] is a problem.